(JTA) – CNN’s Dana Bash has what she calls “a very, very Jewish response” to the question of why she’s hosting a special for her network on antisemitism in America.
“The bad news is there is antisemitism in America,” Bash told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “The good news is I work in a place that wants to shine a spotlight on it, and allow for an investigation into what is happening, why it’s happening and what are the solutions.”
Bash, a member of Temple Micah in Washington, D.C., is the great-granddaughter of Hungarian Jews who were murdered at Auschwitz. She told JTA that having the opportunity to report a special on modern antisemitism was “one of the most important things I’ve ever done.”
The hour-long special, “Rising Hate: Antisemitism In America,” will air on CNN Sunday at 9 p.m. EST. It’s a broad overview of the last few years of antisemitism in America, with a particular focus on how it has evolved in the digital age. Other topics include the Coleyville, Texas, synagogue hostage crisis that unfolded earlier this year; the role former President Donald Trump’s campaign played in fomenting antisemitic rhetoric; Jewish college students who have reported discrimination on campuses; and the operations of the Secure Community Network, a nonprofit that tracks and responds to antisemitic threats from an undisclosed bunker in the Chicago area.
The topic is a personal one for Bash, in more ways than one. To accompany the special, she authored an essay on CNN’s website in which she discusses her own recent apprehension when her preteen son asked her if he could wear a Star of David necklace in public. Deborah Lipstadt, the U.S. State Department’s special envoy on antisemitism, is interviewed in the special, and also discusses why she wears a Star of David as she works.
“My young son showing the world that he is Jewish made me nervous,” Bash admits in the essay, because “I knew that antisemitism is on the rise in America.” But, she later concludes after working on the special, “It turns out that normalizing the practice of and pride in Judaism is one of the antidotes to prejudice — something that my young son understood innately.”
Bash spoke to JTA, which viewed an early cut of the special, in advance of its Sunday premiere.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
JTA: What does it mean for you as a Jew, and as the descendant of Holocaust victims, to be hosting and reporting on the topic of antisemitism?
Bash: It’s one of the most important things I’ve ever done, for sure. Because I’m taking myself out of it, for the most part, and truly researching and talking to people who are experts, who are monitoring it, who are victims of this hate, and trying to understand the origins – and, more importantly, the reasons for the rise now.
I have such a, like so many Jewish Americans, rich and sad and storied family history. And you know, the reason most Jews are in America is because we were persecuted wherever we were. Now, that’s true for other religions. That’s true for Christians, that’s true for Muslims, that’s true for others. America is the place where we’re supposed to be able to practice our religion freely. But we know the truth. The truth is that prejudice is very much alive and well, and has been from the beginning of this country.
Deborah Lipstadt said something to me about why she wears a Jewish star now. She said it’s because when somebody who is Black or somebody who is brown-skinned, Latina, somebody of color walks in a room, and there is a person who is prejudiced in that room, they know who that person is. When there is an antisemite in a room and a Jewish person walks in the room, it’s not immediately clear who we are, what our religion is – what our race is, if you really want to get down to it. And so she wears a Jewish star so she doesn’t hide, and to try to normalize the idea that we are not what the conspiracy theories and the tropes make us out to be.
How did this special come together? When did you start talking about it?
Our senior producer on the program is Melissa Dunst Lipman. She has been pushing the bosses to do this for a while. And unfortunately, the news environment made it clear that there’s a need for it, because there was attack after attack after attack. We had Pittsburgh and we had Poway and we had Colleyville, the list goes on. They said, “Yeah, we should do this.”
And I was really, frankly, nervous. Because it’s such a big, important topic. But I felt honored, in a really twisted way, to be able to participate in this, because it’s so important and runs so deep in my soul.
In conjunction with the special, you published an essay on CNN about your son’s desire to wear a Star of David necklace in public, and your own nervousness or apprehension around that. Tell me about that.
I feel very, very lucky that our children are who they are. From an early age [my son] was very proud of his Judaism. And he goes to Jewish summer camp — that, in his words, unlocked his Judaism even more. Last Hanukkah, he said, “I want a Jewish star. That’s what I want for Hanukkah.” And I kind of blew him off, because I didn’t think he really meant it, and halfway through the eight days, he sheepishly said, “Mom, do you remember that I asked for a Star of David?” And I said, “Wait, you really want one?” And he said, “Yeah, I do.”
And I asked why, and he said, because he feels a very strong Jewish identity, and that kids in high school, who are Christian, are also very proud of their religion, and they wear crosses. So why shouldn’t he wear a symbol that shows who he is?
So I said, “OK, sure,” But I was apprehensive about it. And I certainly didn’t say this to him, for all the reasons that made this special a necessity: Because I think he’s innocent, and he didn’t really realize the millennia that we have to look back on persecution against Jews. He just thought, “This is who I am, and it’s no big deal.” I just said, “OK. How can I argue with that?”
Now I’ve heard from Deborah Lipstadt, and also Jeff Cohen, who was one of the hostages in Colleyville, saying that he wears his kippah out in public much more than he did before, even after he was a victim of antisemitism — almost died! He said, “The way that we combat this is by normalizing Judaism. They normalized hate, well, we’re going to normalize Judaism.”
I learned a lot, and in my son’s very — I thought naive, but it turns out very wise — way, he knew that innately.
Let’s talk about the special itself. It’s very wide-ranging. What are you hoping people will take away from it?
I’m hoping that people take away a couple of things. Number one is that it’s so easy, especially in the world in which we live, to have a point of view and be dug in and not listen to somebody else.
Let’s just take antisemitism that is growing on the progressive political left. What I learned in doing this, which was probably the most fraught, complicated part of this hour, is that people are just talking past each other. Rabbi Danny Zemel, he’s a proud progressive and he’s my rabbi [at Temple Micah in Washington, D.C.]. I called him, and I said, “You have to help me here, because I have to get this right.” And I talked it through with him. He completely understood, because not everybody who’s on the progressive left, who stands up and says they’re an anti-Zionist, really means that they’re anti-Jewish, that they’re antisemitic. He suggested I talk to Rabbi Jill Jacobs, who runs [the rabbinic human rights group] T’ruah, and I interviewed her, and she’s the one who explained and described that to me.
What she does with her friends in the secular progressive world [is] to try to stop their rhetoric and their approach from devolving into antisemitism. When she hears them say, “Well, I’m anti-Zionist,” she says, “What do you mean by that? Explain what you mean by that.” If they say, “Well, I don’t like the policies of the Israeli government,” well, that’s not antisemitism. Lipstadt says that if you want to hear the biggest criticism of the Israeli government, go sit in a cafe in Jerusalem and listen to the Jews.
What is antisemitism is criticizing the Israeli government with tropes, like, “The Jews run the world, the Jews are power-hungry or money-hungry.” And then it gets into much more of a slippery slope, which is what happened to this young woman who I profiled who goes to SUNY New Paltz, where she said she is a proud Zionist in an Instagram post and she got kicked out of a group to help victims of sexual assault, that she founded. Because they didn’t even want to hear what she meant by that. [The student, Cassandra Blotner, is one of two who recently filed a civil rights complaint against SUNY New Paltz with the Department of Education.]
Really what I want to get across is that it’s an age-old conspiracy theory. We’re now, unfortunately, much more familiar with conspiracy theories. A disease pops up, it’s the Jews. A thunderstorm pops up, it’s the Jews, the economy goes down, it’s the Jews. And it is corrosive when it comes to society.
Education is really the number-one thing that I learned that we have to be aggressive and zealous about. Because that’s the way to combat antisemitism, is to educate. There are people who just have hate in their heart, period, and they don’t want to hear it. But for the most part, people get caught up in using tropes or using language that is inherently antisemitic and they don’t realize it until it’s pointed out, which is education.
The other thing that I learned is how pervasive this is online. And it’s not just in the deep dark web. It’s on social media. It’s in online gaming that our young kids are using, and that we think is a safe space. And that’s something that we have to be incredibly aware of.
You’re describing such a central part of the debates within the Jewish community about how to talk about antisemitism, how to frame it, especially when it comes to the left versus the right, and the question of whether they’re equivalent.
And I just want to say, they’re not equivalent. I did not talk to one person who said that they’re equivalent. The extremism and antisemitism on the far right has devolved into real violence, people with semi-automatic weapons going into synagogues and shooting down Jews for no reason other than they were Jews.
On the left, it’s more discourse. Jonathan Greenblatt at the ADL said to me, “On the right, it’s like a category-five hurricane or tornado and they just come in and that just tears everything apart. On the far left, it’s more like climate change. It’s slow moving, it’s growing. Some people deny it exists, but it does exist, and if you ignore it, it’s going to envelop you.” And I thought that was a really good analogy.
One of your interview subjects is the Chabad of Poway’s rabbi, Mendel Goldstein, whose superiors have been trying to get him to resign in the aftermath of a tax fraud scheme involving other members of his family, and he’s been resisting pressure to do that. Was that a conversation at all?
No. We went in with one goal, and that is to put a spotlight on what happens when hate goes unchecked. This is a synagogue where a man came in — a young boy, really, 19 years old, was radicalized online and went in with a gun and with the intent of killing people. That was the focus: who that person is, why they did it. This is strictly about antisemitism: violent antisemitism, in this case.
On the note of Jewish practice, there wasn’t a ton in the special about Jews as Jews. How important do you think it is for understanding antisemitism to understand Jews beyond the context of like victims of anti semitism?
Good question. Let me answer this way: My great-grandparents were secular Jews in Hungary. They weren’t self-hating Jews. They didn’t run from their Judaism, but if you would ask what they were, they would say, “We’re Hungarian.” And then eventually they would get to the fact that they were Jewish. The Nazis didn’t care. They still took them to the gas chamber and killed them in Auschwitz.
So religious practice and observance is so important. It’s something that is personally important to me and to some Jews, but it’s irrelevant to the notion of antisemitism.